Constant van Graan vs. News24


Fri, Jun 15, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

15 June 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Lodged by

 

 

Constant van Graan

 

Date of article

 

 

4 June 2018

 

Headline

 

 

Ex-Israeli soldier trains SA farmers to defend themselves

 

Author of article

 

 

Jan Bornman

 

Respondent

 

George Claassen

Complaint                                            

Van Graan complains the article contained passages that were misleading, dishonest and subjective in that it suggested:

·         farmers believed that they were being attacked by criminals solely due to “an intense campaign by conservative and right-wing groups such as AfriForum and Die Suidlanders” – implying that such a belief was based on mass hysteria and not on actual attacks; and

·         farm attacks were on the decrease.

The text

The article said that an ex-Israeli special forces soldier, Idan Abolnik, was offering special close combat and hand-to-hand training for South African farmers.

His system, called the “Kalah combat system”, has reportedly become popular with South African farmers, “who, because of an intense campaign by conservative and right-wing groups such as AfriForum and Die Suidlanders, believe they are under attack”.

Bornman wrote News24 recently reported that farm attacks and farm murders were not nearly as widespread as some groups would make it appear. “AgriSA released a report last week which showed attacks were nowhere near the record high seen in 2001/2002, when 1 069 farm attacks were recorded. Farm attacks increased from 478 in 2016/2017 to 561 in 2017/2018,” he stated.

The reporter added that, according to AgriSA’s statistics, farm murders decreased from 66 recorded incidents in 2016/2017 to 47 in 2017/2018 – which was less than a third of the record highs of the late 1990s. In 1997/1998 153 murders were recorded, he wrote.

Bornman added that AfriForum had called the figures into question, as its statistics showed in fact an increase in attacks. AfriForum reportedly said it would be releasing its own statistics at the end of July.

The arguments

In addition to his complaint, as summarised above, Van Graan says that, although some campaigns might have influenced some farmers to believe they were unsafe, the farming community in South Africa was vulnerable and susceptible to crime – as was illustrated by numerous reports on farm attacks, including the AgriSA report that Bornman himself quoted.

He adds that News24 frequently reported on such incidents – yet the reporter ignored this and implied that programmes such as Abolnik’s self-defence system for farmers was based on mass hysteria.

Moreover, while the journalist’s narrative was “supported” by his inference that farm attacks were decreasing, the same source he referred to indicated that farm attacks had in fact increased from 478 to 561 attacks in the last year alone. “This is clearly dishonest journalism,” he states.

He concludes that Bornman has implied that there was no real problem in this regard – which has amounted to irresponsible journalism.

Claassen submits that van Graan spuriously twists and misinterprets the article. In fact, he says, Bornman did not use the word “solely” regarding the statement that Abolnik has become popular with South African farmers because of an intense campaign by conservative and right-wing groups.

Regarding the alleged lack of facts and subjectivity on Bornman’s part, Claassen says the use of the words “believe” and that “there is a campaign”, specifically as a race matter, are correct. “There has been no authoritative and scientific proof that any person, race group or political party is coordinating [a] concerted effort to specifically kill white farmers,” he submits.

The internal ombud also refers to Bornman’s article which quotes the official body representing most farmers in South Africa, AgriSA – whose head of community safety, Ian Cameron, reported on the group’s website that its statistics showed an increase in attacks.

Claassen says that the story in question had links to Bornman’s previous story on AgriSA’s statistical report on farm attacks and murders. His report also gave recent statistics by AgriSA, highlighting that farm murders are lowest in 20 years, and that attacks are recently slightly on the up.

He argues that, by AgriSA’s own admission, two points are apparent – their statistics did not only include farmers, but farmworkers as well; and the reason for the unusual brutality and the vulnerability of farmers (and farm workers) is because farms are remote.

Van Graan replies that Claassen has reaffirmed his point, saying that Bornman did not need to use the word “solely” in order for him to suggest that farmers believed they were under attack because of some campaign.

He adds that he has never said nor suggested that there is a coordinated effort to “kill white farmers” – he simply said that the number of farm attacks are high (as are most violent crimes in South Africa), and therefore it would be wrong to say that certain campaigns are the reason why farmers feel they are being attacked. He adds that he has never racialised the complaint by referring to only “white farmers” – those were Claassen’s words, he submits.

 He says it is clear that Bornman used the latter part of the article to indicate that farm attacks were on the decrease in order to support his narrative. 

Analysis

The central questions are if the article has falsely suggested that:

·         farmers’ belief that they were under attack was due to right-wing campaigns, and not to the factual situation in the country; and

·         farm attacks were on the decrease.

Right-wing campaigns

The sentence in question read that South African farmers “who, because of an intense campaign by conservative and right-wing groups such as AfriForum and Die Suidlanders, believe they are under attack”. (My emphasis.)

This, in fact, is the only problematic sentence in the whole article (see the rest of my argument below). If words have meanings – and they do – this quite categorical statement implied that farmers would not have believed they were under attack, had it not been for “intense campaigns” by “right-wing groups” to convince them of the danger.

That, I suggest, is unthinkable – and yet, it is exactly what the words “because of” suggest.

This, to my mind, is demeaning of many farmers and farm workers, white and black, who per implication needed a “campaign” to alert them to the danger.

Had Bornman stated that the awareness of the danger of farm attacks had been intensified by such campaigns, or inserted the word “partly” (or something to this effect). it would have been a different matter. Another option was to say that such campaigns could have exaggerated the perception of the danger, and that some farmers fell for such propaganda.

The reporter did not resort to either of these, or similar, options – and even though he did not use the word “solely”, as argued by Claassen, he still did not qualify his allegation.

I do not believe for one moment that Bornman in fact wanted to belittle or minimise the danger in which farmers and farmworkers find themselves in – but that does not change the fact that his choice of the words “because of” was too categorical.

Therefore, I have no option but to find that the use of the words “because of” was unbalanced. I purposefully do not use the word “subjective”, as “objectivity” (which van Graan asks for) does not exist – not with the media, nor with the public, nor with a complainant.

Statistics

The number of farm attacks has increased and it has decreased – depending on whose, and which, statistics one relies on.

Also, according to some statistics, the number of incidents have decreased, only to have increased at a later stage (from an all-time high in 2001/2002, to a low in 2016/2017, and again to a higher number in 2017/2018). Therefore, it depends on which part of history one focuses – there was a decrease since 2001/2002, but an increase since 2017/2018).

Statistics are patient.

In this instance, Bornman nicely balanced out the debate by referring to both AgriSA’s statistics and those of AfriForum, what was still to release its statistics.

Only when results of a proper scientific study are available, would this office be able to agree on the actual statistics. Such a scientific study has, to the best of my knowledge, not been done yet.

The complaint regarding this issue therefore has no legs to stand on.

Finding

The statement that South African farmers believed they were under attack “because of” an intense campaign by conservative and right-wing groups such as AfriForum and Die Suidlanders was in breach of Section 1.2 of the Press Code that states: “News shall be presented in … a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation…”.

The complaint about the increase/decrease of farm attack statistics is dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches                                              

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                             

The breach of the Press Code as indicated above is a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

News24 is reprimanded for suggesting South African farmers believed they were under attack “because of” an “intense campaign by conservative and right-wing groups such as AfriForum and Die Suidlanders” – while minimising the very real danger such attacks posed to both farmers and farmworkers (even though that most probably was not the journalist’s intention to do).

News24 is directed to publish this reprimand at the top of the page where the article in dispute is published, with a proper headline that clarifies the gist of the complaint.

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;

·     refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;

·     end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;

·     be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and

·     be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud